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Great Britain

Victims allowed to challenge 'lenient' prison sentences of paedophiles under new laws

Victims and members of the public will be able to challenge “unduly lenient” prison sentences given to paedophiles, stalkers and domestic abusers under new laws.

The government is expanding a scheme currently in place for crimes including murder, rape and terrorism to 14 more offences after Boris Johnson called for tougher punishments.

The Ministry of Justice said the changes followed calls from victims’ advocates to widen the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme, which allows people to request a review by the attorney general.

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If the request is granted, the sentence is assessed by Court of Appeal judges and may be increased.

Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said: “We are determined that those found guilty of heinous crimes such as child sex offences receive the sentences their actions warrant.

“Sentences are decided by our independent judiciary based on the facts before them, but it is absolutely right that victims have a voice in the system when punishments don’t appear to fit the crime.”

The new offences include taking, distributing and publishing indecent images of children, and abusing a position of trust to cause a child or person with a mental disorder to engage in sexual activity.

The victims commissioner for England and Wales said her office had requested the addition of stalking, harassment and coercive and controlling behaviour to the Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme.

“They are grossly under-sentenced and undervalued currently and I think a couple of strong Court of Appeal judgments with some clear advice would be a big improvement on those areas,” Dame Vera Baird told The Independent.

“At the moment, around 30 per cent of requests sent in asking for the attorney general to consider referring a case are for crimes that aren’t in the scheme … it needs to be kept up to date and it needs to be promoted.”

Claire Waxman, the victims commissioner for London, said she had been campaigning for change to the “outdated” scheme for three years. 

“It is wrong that victims of stalking, harassment, coercive control and child sexual abuse have for too long not had the right to challenge sentences if they felt they did not reflect the severity of the crime they had endured,” she said.

“For victims of these crimes, this has been a long time coming, but I am pleased that the government has finally delivered on its commitment to ensure more victims have a right to appeal and a proper voice in the justice system.”

Dame Vera Baird was among those calling for more offences to be included (PA)

Prison reform campaigners have raised concerns that the changes would worsen overcrowding in jails amid soaring violence and drug abuse.

But Dame Vera predicted that the expansion would not cause a “massive escalation” in the prison population because not all requests are granted.

Ministry of Justice statistics show that 99 criminals had their sentences increased through the scheme in 2018.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, called for officials to look at whether increasing individual prison terms could be worsening reoffending.

“There are questions to be asked about whether increasing the prison term of one person really has an impact on reducing harm and preventing crime more generally or if it simply assuages the apparent need for ever-increasing punishment,” she said.

Michael Ellis, the solicitor general, said the Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme “can bring comfort to victims and their families across the country”. 

“Anyone can apply to the scheme and although there is a high bar to any appeal we will do everything we can to challenge a sentence that we regard to be clearly wrong,” he added.

The change is expected to come into effect later this year, following the introduction of secondary legislation.

The announcement came after Mr Johnson ordered a separate review of the sentences given to violent criminals and sex offenders.

The prime minister was accused of “talking tough” on crime instead of tackling its root causes, after a string of announcements promising thousands more prison places and a crackdown on criminal activity behind bars.

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